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Bush urges Irish Protestant leader to reach accord

BELFAST -- President Bush lent his weight yesterday to a final push for reviving power-sharing in Northern Ireland, telling the province's Protestant leader to do his best to cut a deal with his longtime Catholic enemies.

The Rev. Ian Paisley, whose Democratic Unionist Party represents most of Northern Ireland's British Protestant majority, received a telephone call from Bush just before Paisley and his senior aides began to discuss the latest draft of a confidential British-Irish blueprint for compromise.

Bush told reporters at his Texas ranch that he called Paisley to try to nudge the peace process forward. He said he had sought to get the two sides "to the table to get a deal done, to close the agreement they've been working on for quite a while."

The president added that he would do "anything I can do to help to keep the process moving forward."

Paisley, a stridently anti-Catholic evangelist who has spent decades denouncing Protestant rivals who dared compromise, said he told Bush he wanted to reach agreement with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, but stressed that "any deal must be fair."

"I reminded the president of the fact that he would not have terrorists in his government, and that we must be satisfied that IRA terrorism is over and cannot return," said Paisley, 78.

Bush's telephone diplomacy, which included a similar call to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, was reminiscent of the interventions made by Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, in the hours leading up to Northern Ireland's landmark Good Friday peace pact of 1998.

That US-brokered deal has achieved or advanced dozens of goals designed to end a 35-year conflict over this British territory that has claimed 3,600 lives.

But its core objective -- sustaining a stable, joint Catholic-Protestant administration -- has proved impossible to date.

That could change in the next week of expected high-pressure negotiations, particularly within the ranks of both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists.

Their twin election triumphs last year at the expense of the province's moderate parties appeared to dash hopes of reviving power-sharing. But British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, proved unrelenting in pressing the two parties toward a deal.

"This is a very crucial weekend in the peace process," said Ahern, who signed off late Thursday on a redrafted Anglo-Irish power-sharing formula after a long discussion with Blair. Ahern conceded the new plan "isn't perfect for everybody because that isn't possible," and added: "I wish the parties well. They've very big decisions."

Ahern said he expected a verdict from both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists early next week, with a possible statement from the IRA to follow.

Although the new plan has remained secret, it reportedly includes an expectation that the IRA would fully disarm by Christmas -- and, for the first time, allow Catholic and Protestant clergymen to witness the previously secretive process of scrapping arms. The Democratic Unionists have been holding out for photographs or TV footage of disarmament to persuade skeptical Protestants it had happened.

Adams, 56, a former IRA commander, sounded a cautious note, emphasizing he would need to read the latest plan in detail over the weekend. "There's still some work to be done," he said, declining to elaborate.

Analysts agreed the key to a deal is Paisley, saying that as a figure of legendary inflexibility, he could be uniquely qualified to sway a Protestant community embittered by three decades of IRA attacks and distrustful of Sinn Fein.

The Democratic Unionists boycotted the negotiations that produced the Good Friday accord because of Sinn Fein's involvement, but in the years since have slowly moved toward the middle ground.

They still won't negotiate directly with Sinn Fein and insist that sharing power will never happen unless the IRA disarms and disbands.

But in a commitment that stunned some observers earlier this year, the party declared that such a coalition would become "mandatory" if the IRA really did go out of business.

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